The Birth of an Idea: the Chamomile Tea Party’s 1st Birthday

02 Jul 2011
July 2, 2011
Poster: Bipartisan Reform: DOA

Today marks the first anniversary of an idea. One year ago today, as I was walking home from work, my brain gave birth to the Chamomile Tea Party. More specifically, I decided to take World War II-era propaganda posters and remix their words with commentary about the caustic state of contemporary American discourse.

I remember exactly how it happened and exactly where I was when the idea hit me. I was let out of work early for the July 4th weekend. I took the Metro home and was walking the last mile to my house. Listening to NPR’s All Things Considered, Melissa Bloch was discussing the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and David Brooks from the New York Times. Just as I got right here the idea just happened.

Here’s the story I’ve told of that moment for the last year:


As I was walking home from work, listening to NPR, they were reporting that every Republican was going to vote the Party line against Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court and it was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was so incensed that party politics would trump what I thought was the good of the country I came up with the idea to take propaganda posters from World War II to comment on today’s political rancor.

But memory is a funny thing. Yesterday, as I walked that exact path home I stopped to take a picture of where I was at that moment and to reflect on what the commentators had said. When I got home I went to the NPR archives to look for a transcript of that report. And much to my chagrin I found out they didn’t say that at all. Yes, they discussed Kagan and her nomination but there is no mention of the Republican voting party lines. But I was sure they had. Funny how your mind works.

Ideas don’t just happen. They aren’t pulled out of a magic hat. Often disparate interests sit someplace in our brains just waiting to be put together to create something new. I’d always been interested in propaganda posters from the 1940s. I liked their stylized illustrations paired with often sparse but efficient calls to action. Both were hallmarks of great graphic design. In addition, despite many Americans notions that we enjoy the greatest freedoms of any nation in the world, is that really true? Is our government free of subterfuge? Are we really an open society where new ideas are openly embraced? And, finally, I’d been stewing for many months over the hubris politicians and candidates spouted as they calculated the huge payoff from their niche bases. The whole process disgusted me. It seems all of these thoughts were percolating when they decided to band together for the greater good one year ago today.

Angry, I replied in the best way I could. These separate pieces “suddenly” came together. Using my skills as a designer and my opinion as a citizen, I spent the 4th of July weekend creating the first six posters from the Chamomile Tea Party. I did six more the next weekend. Once my brain completed the connections I was possessed. The Chamomile Tea Party moniker had come to me about six months before all of this –such a wonderful play on words with the Tea Party’s “take no prisoners” attitude. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with the name but like a good netizen I registered the domain right away. These posters would be my perfect foil.

The series continues to be a work-in-progress. I’ve done 19 posters in the last year and I’m working on new ones (I’ve got one about financial reform I’m mulling over now). It’s not easy finding just the right twist to go with each original image. The more I do the easier it is to go off on tangents. The process of coming up with the right phrases is not easy. Culling a complicated idea into its most efficient form is an art. From the beginning I’ve had a group of friends debating my initial concepts. I love the input and the work is much better for it. This is part of the fun and the challenge of this project.

I’ve gotten some great publicity along the way. BoingBoing did two pieces and the Huffington Post did an article in their Politics section. Over 750 people commented! These discussions and debates also informed my work. They helped me fine tune my message. It’s a constant learning process. And I’ve connected with others who feel as I do. I’ve connected with the Coffee Party, a large grassroots organization who are working towards the same goal: cut the political posturing to work together to get our country back on the right track.

Most importantly, I want these posters to be used by others who are interested in these ideas. I’ve encouraged people to download the high res versions I’ve put online. And, at the Rally for Sanity last October on the National Mall, others actually printed them large to voice their own opinions. Good work, we the people!

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074